Christmas market in Colmar

Colmar was voted in the top 3 Christmas markets in Europe in 2016

When we read Colmar was rated one of the top Christmas markets (also called Weihnactsmarkt) we decided to spend my birthday weekend there. Colmar, is approximately an hour from the Swiss-French border in the Alsace region.

One of the first surprises was how well organized everything was. Clear signs in the city take you to a parking lot. Parking was free for the entire weekend and there were free shuttles that took the crowd to the Christmas market. No wonder it was rated highly, and this was even before we had reached the market.

 

The entire town of Colmar transforms into a Winter Wonderland

Plan enough time to walk around all the Christmas market areas (there were 5 of them!) and also visit the “Little Venice” and other neighbourhoods in town. The entire town lights up in the evening and it is a sight to behold!

Vin Chaud and Warm Maroni

Christmas markets are all about the food and drink. What better way to keep warm on the cold, winter days than some hot wine. Vin chaud, gluhwine, mulled wine- whatever you call it, it’s as delicious! We also tried some warm maroni (chestnuts) which are popular during the winters

Colmar’s market is a wonderful day out for the kids

Christmas markets, especially in Colmar, are wonderful days out for kids. There are skating rinks, carol singing at wineries, carousels and fun rides throughout the town. The highlight was kids singing carols, floating down the “Little Venice” canals in illuminated boats.

All in all, experiencing a Christmas market, and especially the one in Colmar is highly recommended!

2 day trip to Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como is one of those places everyone’s heard about but never visited

We first heard of Lake Como like most others, when George Clooney made it famous by making it his summer home. And you can see why!

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Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=653364

The other thing no one tells you- it’s a huge lake! The lake is shaped like an inverted Y and borders Switzerland and Italy. There are many many small towns each of which are almost indistinguishable, yet have their own characteristics. We stayed in Lezzeno, which is close to one of the bigger towns Bellagio, and our Airbnb  had fantastic views of the lake.

 

 

Lake Como views
Views of Lake Como from our Airbnb

There’s a lot you can do around Lake Como. Our recommendations for a relaxed family friendly vacation would be to spend as much time as you can on the lake and check out some of these towns

1. Bellagio

Bellagio is one of the bigger towns in Como and looks quite regal. It has a more touristy feel but worth some time. It also is well located at the base of the “golden triangle” and has good ferry connections to Varenna and Mennagio. We spent an evening there, strolling along the lake and getting drinks and dinner.

 

 

 

We did not go to the Lido in Bellagio but it looked very busy and had a good vibe. Leave us some comments if you’ve been or plan to go.

 

 

2. Menaggio

A ferry ride from Bellagio is Menaggio. This town is easily accessible from Lugano and the Swiss border and it shows in the size and popularity. We took our car across the lake on the ferry, which was a cool experience, especially for the parents. Spend time at the Lido which has two pools and access to the lake with spectacular views of the mountains.

 

 

3. Lenno

This cute little town is on the same side as Menaggio and famous for  Villa Balbianello. Walk along the lake, enjoy the million dollar mansions and eat dinner at one of the restaurants. Good food and great prices.

 

 

4. Lezzeno

We lived in Lezzeno and is probably the only reason we visited it. We spent half a day at the lake in Lezzeno and we highly recommend Restaurant Aurora. the beach acess had deck chairs, paddle boats and a giant trampoline all accessible for 10 euros!

Como and Lecco are probably the most urban towns along the lake. We didn’t have the time to visit them but could easily be part of the plan.

2 days in Athens, Greece – fall in love with the ancient city!

Athens has always held a special allure, and we jumped at the opportunity to visit it!

Though we spent a week in Athens, the primary reason for the visit was work, so there were some evenings for play. Putting all the hours together we actually spent exploring the city, as is our theme, 48 hours in Athens might be sufficient to give a good taste of the city, though Athens, or Greece, will definitely leave you wanting much more time!

What blew us away right from the beginning was how old everything was! To be able to see and touch structures from 2000 and 1500 B.C. was absolutely amazing!

An approximate 2 day itinerary could be:

Day 1: Begin the day like the Athenians, with a frappe!


Take a walking tour. We went for the free walking tour organized by Athens Free Tour and enjoyed it. Unfortunately the rain decided to really come down right as we were beginning so the route was altered slightly to give us more shelter, but as in most cities, the walking tour was a great way to get a general idea of the city and figure out where things were. They have 2 tours everyday, one at 9.45am and the other at 5pm.

The tour starts from Hadrian’s arch, which is right outside the temple of Olympian Zeus, so if you can get there early, use the time to explore inside the Olympieion.

Tip: Buy the multi-site, combination ticket. When in Athens, you cannot not go into at least 3-4 of the ancient sites, if not all of them! This ticket, for 30 EUR allows entry into: Hadrian’s library, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Kerameikos, Olympieion (temple of Olympian Zeus), and most importantly, the Acropolis and the North and South slopes, and it absolutely worth it.

Now that you have an approximate idea of where things are, if you can resist it, dont go to the Acropolis just yet.

Grab a gyro for lunch, on the go like the Athenians, or take some time to cool off and rest your feet before the next round of walking.

Use the rest of the day to explore inside Hadrian’s library and the Ancient Agora, and you still have the energy, the Roman Agora. Hadrian’s library is possibly the oldest library ever and some tablets that survived can still be seen! The Ancient Agora is a tiny city in itself and houses the best preserved Greek temple. We definitely recommend visiting both sites.

 

Temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora
Stoa of Zeus in the Ancient Agora
Odeon of Agrippa at the Ancient Agora
Gate at Roman Agora
Tower of the Winds at Roman Agora
Hadrian’s Library
Stone tablets at Hadrian’s Library

Dinner can be in the Monastiraki area. The deeper into the alleys you go, the more local the restaurants feel, though there are tourists everywhere. Rule of thumb could be cost of moussaka (not more than 8-10EUR) or a glass or ouzo (not more than 2-4EUR). Read more about all the delicious food in Greece here.

Day 2: Acropolis!

Go to the Acropolis museum first. Its a great way to hear the story about the Acropolis and Parthenon and see the real pieces they have preserved. Start from the top floor and make your way down, it felt like a more complete story doing it this way. Also the floor is glass, so maybe dont wear a skirt!

Now that you know all the history and have seen what the separate pieces look like, time to ascend to the Parthenon. (The hill with all the structures is called the Acropolis and the big temple on the top is the Parthenon).

You can get official guided tours, we didn’t, but I’m sure the stories would’ve been quite interesting. Climb up the Acropolis, soak in the views and feel the awe of being surrounded by stones that are more than 2000 years old!

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

If you havent had your fill of views, try to get to the top of Lycabettus (also known as Lycabettos, Lykabettos or Lykavittos) in time for sunset. The light guilds all the ancient structures, making them look even more impressive than they already do!

With more time in the country, definitely try to visit one (or many) of the islands. We only had a couple of days, so chose to visit Hydra (Idra) which was closer to the mainland than most, and really enjoyed our time! Read more about it in the post on Idra (coming soon).

To us, Athens felt so much like home- the warmth of the people, the summer heat, the traffic, the organized chaos- we loved every minute!

2 days in Paris: Top 10 things to do

One trip is never enough to explore all of Paris, but if you have a time-crunch (like most of us do) these are the 10 must-dos in a 2 day trip. In no specific order:

1. Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur: Wander through the narrow alleys in Montmatre, admire the work of the street artists and finally ascend to the top and visit the basilica.


2. Louvre: Two days are barely enough to explore the entire museum, but even if you can only spare a morning, this museum cannot be missed. With only a few hours, carefully choose the areas of the museum that are most interesting to you, otherwise you can get caught up somewhere else, and before you know it, it’ll be time to leave.


3. Eiffel Tower: Opinions of the Eiffel tour seem to vary, with some people love it others think its a monstrosity. When in Paris though, it is impossible to miss it, you can see the tower from almost everywhere in the city. We really enjoyed our visit, including the ascent to the top and would recommend visiting it, by day and night!

4. Notre dame: Another iconic structure in Paris, this Gothic cathedral is awe inspiring! Take the time to admire the work on the doors, the gargoyles all around the structure and the magnificent insides.

5. Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées: While there is a similar looking arc in most French cities, this one is special and warrants a visit. Also getting to it could mean walking down the Champs-Élysées, giving you a chance to ogle at all the fancy designer stores in the city of fashion!

6. Moulin Rouge: Made more famous after the musical and film, it is still a Paris landmark. Not just the windmill theater, in which, if you are lucky enough, you should try and watch a show; but also the metro station outside! A replica of the station can be found in Montreal, Canada!

Since this is a list of must-dos, and sampling the local food and drink feature prominently on our list of things to do, here are some food recommendations!

7. Desserts at a local patisserie/boulangerie: While French desserts look beautiful, they might seem small and insubstantial to the untrained eye (like us). However, once eaten, they are just the right size to leave you satisfied and yet craving for a little more!

8. Eat Escargot: Not for the squeamish, but in butter and garlic, with basil pesto, they are actually quite tasty!


9. Drink the wine: When in France, how can you not!


10. Walk along the Seine and ice cream at Île Saint-Louis: Following the lead of a local friend, we found that this was a really fun experience. Berthillon is quite famous and though the line was long, it was totally worth it!


If you have had enough of the big city, take a day trip to Versailles. Read more about it here

 And at the end of it all, come back, with a little more time, to soak in more of the vibe in the city that styles itself as a global center for art, fashion, gastronomy and culture!

Food Guide: Athens, Greece 

Like Italy, one of the highlights of our Greek trip was the food! Heavily influenced by Turkish cuisine, Greek food was really delicious and very affordable. Some of what we tried and would definitely recommend include (we ate a lot- this is a long but tasty post!):

For appetizers:

Greek salad: When in Greece, how can you not?! The vegetables are some of the freshest, the tomatoes are flavorful and the fresh feta is delicious!


Tzatziki: In the land of the best yogurt in the world, anything made with yogurt is delicious. Fresh tzatziki with warm bread could absolutely make a meal on its own.

Eggplant salad: Also made with yogurt, but this time with smoked eggplant- how can one go wrong!


Saganaki cheese: Pan-seared hard yellow Greek cheese, eaten with a drizzle of lemon, sounds as delicious and sinful as it tastes!


Kopanisti: Made with sharp tasting cheese from the Cycladic island of Tinos, with sun-dried tomatoes and yogurt, it had a strong taste- not necessarily for all palettes, but we really liked it, especially washed down with ice cold Ouzo!

Spinach and cheese roll: Inspired from Turkish food, it also made for a great breakfast.

Given a chance to go to one of the islands, sea food starters are:

Seafood soup/stew: Made with a tiny local fish (with an unpronounceable name) it was tasty, heartening and extremely comforting.

Fried calamari: Yes, you can get them anywhere in the world, but how often can you eat them right next to where they were caught?!

For mains:

Gyro: Almost ubiquitously available, this meat and salad wrap, with fries, slathered in delicious sauce is messy, filling and delicious! We even took a couple to the airport for one last taste of Greece before we left.



Souvlaki: Also another form of kebab, this time on a skewer, it is normally served with fries, salad, and warm fresh pita bread. With the spicy sauce or tzatziki, it is finger licking good.

Kebab with yogurt: With pita at the bottom, kebabs and vegs in the middle, covered with yogurt and spicy tomato sauce, we really licked the platter clean!

Moussaka: One of the better known Greek dishes, the moussaka in Greece was probably the best we’ve ever tasted.

Saffron risotto: Saffron from Greece is world-renowned and when added to risotto, definitely made the dish something special.

Lamb shank: The Greeks pride themselves on eating only the most tender, well cooked meat- and true to form, the meat was delicious, juicy and literally fell off the bone!

And then the sea food…..

Lobster with spaghetti: A delicacy, sold in most restaurants by the weight, we were lucky enough to have it cooked for us in a Greek friend’s house, and oh was it d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s! Definitely a must have! Even if it isnt home-made, especially for you..

Hydra Octopus: Made specially on the island of Hydra (Idra), the olive oil and tomato sauce, along with the juicy octopus, come together really well!

Saganaki mussels: We tried this in Hydra, but might be available wherever there are mussels. Made with feta cheese, pump mussels and butter- what’s there not to love!

And finally, for dessert:

Greek yogurt with thyme honey: Simple and delicious, I could’ve eaten it for every meal! The yogurt is thick and creamy and thyme honey (honey from bees who visit only thyme flowers) has just the right amount of sweetness… ah heavenly!

Baklava: Also influenced by the long Turkish rule, they have baklava with pistachios, almonds, walnuts and even chocolate!

Orange cake: Made from Seville oranges, that are too bitter to eaten on their own, and sweetened with honey, this was oozing and moist and yummm!


Lemon coconut cake: We were offered it, on the house, in one of the restaurants and would definitely recommend ordering it! Tart and coconut-y, it made for a very interesting dessert.


Fresh fruits: They are everywhere, gorgeous to look at, and so cheap! Peaches, nectarines, strawberries, cherries.. all for only about 1 EUR per kilo! I wish I could’ve brought some back with me!

Drinks (of course):

Frappe: Reading about the frappe culture, is nothing compared to actually seeing it- everyone drinks frappes, all the time! Its a great way to consume coffee- unsweetened or sweetened if the coffee is too strong, iced to beat the heat, it can keep you going all day long!


Tsipouro: Greek brandy, the clear version is drunk before a meal as an aperitif and the aged smoky kind is drunk after meals.

Ouzo: Also drunk as an aperitif, tsipouro with anise came to be called ouzo. It was once called “a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood”. Clear in the bottle, it turns milky white when mixed with water.

Most locals will warn you to be careful when drinking ouzo, and they always recommend drinking it with food. It is generally considered poor form to drink ouzo ‘dry hammer’ “ξεροσφύρι”, xerosfýri, an idiomatic expression that means ‘drinking alcohol without eating anything’ in Greece. This is because, the sugar in ouzo delays absorption of alcohol in the stomach, making the drinker believe that s/he can drink more without feeling tipsy. Then the cumulative effect of ethanol appears and the drinker becomes inebriated rather quickly!

Go to Greece and eat! καλή όρεξη

New Year’s Eve in Cartagena, Colombia- Walking the old city & fireworks!

Combing the streets of Cartagena!

Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that is almost a gateway to South America. Located in the northern part of Colombia, it has a very European feel to it, yet is as South American as they come! Always warm and inviting Cartagena is known for it’s ‘magical realism’.

cartagena magical realism

Its a wonderful city to walk around with interesting neighborhoods like Getsemani, San Diego and Centro inside the walls. There were more developed Miami-like beach areas which we avoided, preferring to get a feel for the real city, not only the touristy parts.

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To get a real feel for the city, we would recommend walking along the walls of old city Cartagena. Get lost exploring- walking through Centro and San Diego neighborhoods. This can take ~3-4 hours and along the way you can see many shops and restaurants or small cafes which provide a refreshing respite from the hot sun! You will walk past colorful houses, interesting street art, statues and murals.

The city looks even more beautiful in the evening as the sun sets. You can see the main gate all lit up and enjoy views of Christopher Columbus’ ship which is now a museum.

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If you still have energy left, Cartagena is famous for its buzzing night life, which starts only after 10 pm. Cafe Havana is one of the famous places to visit. It is supposed to have great music and drinks, but since it was New Year’s Eve, and we were completely unprepared (no reservations), we didnt get a chance to check it out.IMG_0099

New Year’s eve in Cartagena was another special experience! The whole city came to a standstill. Restaurants were completely full, as were the streets, and from the crowds it was clear that New Year’s eve celebrations and the fireworks were a family event, to be celebrated with everyone, children and grandparents included! We waited along the wall, like most of the locals, to see the fireworks.

While we called it a night after the fireworks, the city and its inhabitants carried on well into the wee hours of the new year 2016!

Street art in Florence

Florence is a great city to walk around. Besides all the conventional art and architecture, which in itself is extremely abundant and awe-inspiring, there are hidden treasures which make exploration by foot even more interesting. One such under-appreciated, and largely unknown treasure is the creative street art by the local artists Clet and Blub.

Clet

Observe the stop and no entry signs and you will notice each one has some graffiti / modifications. Only after a few did we realise that it is a pattern and indeed art, by the local artist Clet Abraham. While some see his work as defacing public property, others view it as contemporary art, which reflects a modern Florence. Either way, it was fun tracking the signs through the city! We even came across Clet’s studio where you can buy some of the stickers and signs. You can follow Clet on Facebook or Instagram

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Blub

Blub’s art is called L’Arte sa Nuotare which means ‘Art knows how to swim’. His aim is to make art more accessible and he achieves this by taking famous pieces of art, literally, for a swim. That’s why famous statues from Boticelli or Michaelangelo can be seen in water tanks and scuba gear.  His pieces are all over the city as well, in some of the most unexpected places. You can follow Blub on Facebook and  Instagram

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Clet with his famous road signs

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Girl with pearl earring, out for a swim!
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Sandro Botticelli holding Cosimo the Elder
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Other, less known, street artists also can be found all over the city. Truly, Florence itself is an open air art museum!

Two days in Quito- in and around the city

Our trip to Ecuador made me want to start this blog. It was planned fairly spontaneously and the plan was to improvise  as we travel through the country, so it gave rise to lots of opportunities worth blogging about!

Day 1 was a big shock to the system. As soon as we landed, we realized that English is not spoken very widely. We had to quickly start thinking and talking only in Spanish. Learn a little Spanish– this will be my advice for people planning to go to Ecuador. It will change your experience completely.

Flights into Ecuador from the US all land late, around midnight. The drive from the airport to the city is almost an hour. By the time we completed immigration and took a taxi to Quito it was almost 3 am. People fear being cheated by taxis, but all our rides were safe.

In the morning after breakfast we headed to the Equator! Mitad del Mundo is about an hour from Quito by local buses. It’s a bit touristy but definitely worth a visit. You get to see the north-south divide and experience strange phenomenon like balancing eggs on a pin and watching the flow of water reversing itself. Rest of the “amusement park” is just about OK. The museum in the tower is quite interesting and gives a nice overview of the different regions of Ecuador and it’s native folk.

That evening we decided to take the gondola (or Telefirico) to one of the attractions in Quito, their local mountain, Pichincha. The views from the top are spectacular but be prepared for rarefied air because you were at the height of 14,000 feet. It was also our chance to meet up with college friends Enrique and Cynthia who are Quito locals.The walk was refreshing even with the rarefied air and catching up with friends is always great fun.

Since it was around Christmas time, there was a Christmas fair/market at the top of El Panecillo. Convinced it would be a quintessential Quito experience, and since the traffic leading up to the top was horrible, we decided to walk all the way up. While it is quite a climb to the top, the market and the view were definitely worth it.6.jpg1.JPG

We tried interesting local treats, including banana stuffed with cheese and chocolate, and had our first taste of Canelazo, which immediately became our favorite drink in the country and we drank it at every opportunity we got, over the next few days!

Day 2 was about exploring Old Quito, again with Enique and Cynthia, who, once they decided we were alright to spend time with, volunteered to show us around. We’ve said it before and will do so again, seeing a new city with a local completely changes the experience and is absolutely recommended!

Enrique took us to his art studio/workshop/music venue: Casa del Art, before we started the tour around town. They have some very interesting art pieces! Unfortunately they didn’t have a concert planned, but there’s hopefully a next time..1.jpg

We began with Iglesia de San Francisco, a a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex in old Quito, which houses the city’s beloved Virgin of Quito. While imposing from the outside, it was gorgeous inside!4.jpg3.jpg

Lunch was Equadorian fare in the picturesque Vista Hermosa, overlooking the beautiful city.2.jpg

We ended our tour of the Old town in La Ronda neighborhood- it used to be infamous back in the day, though now it has been cleaned up and has lots of chique cafes and bars.3.JPG

Having spent all day in Old Quito made us curious to see what the new part of the city was like. So we ended the day in Plaza Foch, the center of La Mariscal, the subsection of New Town, with a dense concentration of clubs, bars, restaurants, Internet cafes, and backpacker hotels – the area is informally referred to as Gringolandia because of its popularity with tourists. Our local guides had left us by now- this was too touristy even for them!  2.JPG

As advertised, it was full of tourists and could very well be a main street in any American town, so after the mandatory photo, we headed back, to rest our tired feet and prepare for our next destination in Ecuador- Baños!

 

2 days in Lisboa: explore and eat!

Lisbon or as it is affectionately and officially called, Lisboa, has become one of our favorite cities in Europe. We talk a lot about ‘feeling the vibe’ or ‘not feeling the vibe’ of a city and for Lisboa we felt the vibe, oh yes!

We got to Lisboa early in the morning after our overnight bus right from Algeciras (Spanish port near Gibraltar) via Sevilla (Spain). We got dropped at the Oriente bus station and took an Uber to our hostel, Travellers House.2.JPGIf you like hostels and don’t mind sharing the room with random people, we recommend Travellers House. It has a very cool, chic feel and the people running it are passionate locals who organize daily activities for the inhabitants, and are willing, and more than happy, to help you plan your own trips. We got some great recommendations from them!

We spent 2 days in Lisbon (no surprises there) and can’t wait to go back! Here are the top 5 things to do in and around Lisbon.

1. Take a free walking tour

Its a great way to get a feel for the city and all its neighborhoods so that it doesn’t seem too unfamiliar when you go exploring on your own later. And if it involves drinking Ginjinha on the way, ever better!

2. Visit Belem

See the Palace, tower, explorers’ monument (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) and eat pastels!b1.JPGb2.JPGb3.JPGb4.jpg

3. Day trip to Sintra & the Westernmost point of Europe (Cabo de Roca)

A 45 minute train ride away, Sintra is a magical palace with fairytale castles and totally worth a visit. Cabo de Roca is windy and cold, but beautiful and its quite cool to be at the Westernmost point of Europe.s1.JPGs2.JPGs3.JPGs4.jpg

4. Eat a pastel de nata- for breakfast, lunch and dinner

They’re delicious and ubiquitous! With coffee, they are just perfect.

5. Watch/experience a Fado

While if it is performed in a large impersonal setting, a Fado might feel like any other musical performance, in a language you may not understand. But, in an intimate setting, where you can feel the vibrations from the guitars in the planks of the floor below your feet and almost can taste the singer’s tears, it is a completely different experience. The singers normally have powerful, beautiful voices and it is a pleasure to be part of the journey that they take their listeners on.

And while you do all of the above, eat some (or a lot of) seafood! (And drink the cheap, but delicious, local wines)c1.JPGc2.JPGc3.JPGc4.JPG

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